Research News

Paid family leave, pregnancy accommodation laws boost labor market

Jennifer Shinall
Jennifer Shinall (Vanderbilt University)

Vanderbilt law professor Jennifer Shinall finds that some, but not all, types of legislation designed to protect pregnant employees are effective in their aim to help these workers keep working during pregnancy and after giving birth. Her findings, based on an analysis of these laws and related state disability insurance programs, provide valuable guidance to policymakers and advocates seeking to keep pregnant employees in the workforce. Pregnancy accommodation laws and paid family leave improve labor market outcomes for women who have recently given birth, while pregnancy transfer laws and state disability insurance programs do not.

Her paper, Protecting Pregnancy, is forthcoming in the Cornell Law Review.

“We’ve seen growing bipartisan interest in passing legislation to protect pregnancy and the postpartum period in the workplace over the last several years, and states have passed a patchwork of different types of laws to address that,” said Shinall. “But one of the things I’ve found over the years is that sometimes laws don’t work the way they’re supposed to—sometimes they can backfire. So the question I had was: If Congress or a state legislature wanted to pass a pregnancy protection bill, or if a nonprofit wanted to advocate for such a bill, what type of legislation would be the most effective?”

Shinall looked at four categories of laws that various states have implemented:

  • Pregnancy accommodation laws, which require employers to adjust a pregnant employee’s job duties, much as they would for a temporary disability.
  • Pregnancy transfer laws, which require employers to shift a pregnant employee into an open, equivalent job.
  • State disability insurance programs, which generally provide financial support for a certain period of time to any employee with a medical condition that temporarily interferes with work. This can include complications from pregnancy or birth, but does not generally extend to a normal pregnancy or childbirth.
  • Paid family leave laws, which provide short-term financial support to any new parent following the birth or adoption of a child, regardless of medical need.

Shinall used the American Community Survey, which is compiled by the Census Bureau, to obtain labor market data on women who had given birth in the previous year. Controlling for a variety of factors, including age, education, race, marriage, and having other small children at home, she then calculated the impact of that state’s pregnancy protection laws on the average recently pregnant worker’s employment status, wages, and number of weeks worked in the previous year.

The results were compelling: Pregnancy accommodation and paid family leave did appear to help recently pregnant workers stay in the workforce, while pregnancy transfer laws actually seemed to hold them back. Short-term disability laws did not appear to offer any benefit, and in some areas may have had a slightly negative impact—though Shinall cautioned that she only examined their effect on pregnancy, not other health conditions.

Pregnancy accommodation laws increased employment rates for these workers by as much as 2.2 percent, labor market participation by as much as 5.6 percent, and raised the average number of weeks worked by up to two weeks during the year the employee gave birth.

Paid family leave programs increased employment rates by up to 1.7 percent, labor market participation up to 5.2 percent and increased the average number of weeks worked by up to two weeks.

Pregnancy transfer laws, however, had a negative employment effect. It reduced employment rates by up to 1.4 percent and decreased the number of weeks worked by one week. “One of the reasons this may have happened is that the employee may have been transferred into a job that wasn’t a good fit, and decided not to stay or was fired,” Shinall said.

Shinall’s analysis provides clear evidence that pregnancy protection laws are not equally effective, and in at least one instance, can be counterproductive. However, it also shows clear benefits for pregnancy accommodation and paid family leave.

“Policymakers and advocates may understandably be tempted to throw their weight behind whatever type of law seems most likely to pass,” Shinall said. “But what I’ve found is that the differences between these policies matter, and people who care about this issue should be focusing their efforts on pregnancy accommodation and paid family leave, because those have the most positive labor market effects.”